Viking and Enceladus

When NASA’s Viking rovers landed on the surface of Mars, arguably the most attention-grabbing experiments the pair performed were tested the shallow subsurface for signs of life. The search for life is pushing us to explore worlds beyond the red planet, especially the icy moons of Saturn and Jupiter, Enceladus and Europa. But I can’t help but wonder if one of the lessons from Viking is to take it slow.

The 2008 discovery of perchlorates on Mars by NASA’s Phoenix rover led some scientists to suggest that perhaps Viking did detect life, after all. The researchers argued that a lack of knowledge of the environment played into the misinterpreting of the Viking results.

What if NASA had pursued a slow-and-steady march on the red planet like the one it follows today before testing for life? Would the growing understanding have provided a better background for Viking’s experiments? Or would public interest (and government spending) have tapered out, leaving us more clueless about the red planet than we are today?

It’s hard enough to second-guess oneself; I’m admittedly opening myself up to ridicule by trying to second guess an entire nation. One thing is sure: despite Viking’s amazing photographs a brand new vista, exploration of Mars ground to a halt for some time after it touched down. Having missed living through the era, I can’t say how much the disappointment over lack of signs of life influenced the halt. But my knowledge of human nature suggests that getting a ‘no’ to a yes/no question played a role.

Even more important than disappointment, I think, is the lack of ability to put Viking’s findings in perspective. While the lander revealed a wealth of information about the red planet, the role of Phoneix’s findings suggests it left some information wanting.

Currently, NASA plans to send a mission to Jupiter’s icy moon Europa. Despite its frigid frozen surface, Europa boasts a sea that could contain the ingredients for life. Many people are calling for the first mission to the moon to be a lander; after all, Galileo already provide insight about what can be seen from above. And many people want to dive right into the moon, kicking off the search for life as soon as such a lander touches down.

But I can’t help wonder if we might be able to take something learned from Viking and apply it to Europa. How much better might the results of a lander be when taken in context with information gathered by an orbiter? How much more prepared would mission scientists be to hunt for life after spending some time on the surface?

Space exploration is as much sales as it is science. Sometimes the best way to keep people coming back is to leave them wanting more. Exploring Europa slowly, rather than diving right in to cry yay or nay on life, will not only keep people wanting more missions, it will also result in stronger science.